Stephen J. Cannell, TV Legend, Talks Writing And The Strange Stories Behind The Rockford Files And The A-Team

by | January 23, 2009 at 10:55 PM | Interviews

Few people fit the word legend, but Stephen J. Cannell wears it as comfortably as he does his black leather jacket. His recently published 15th novel, “On the Grind,” was an instant bestseller, solidifying his reputation as a widely read crime writer. But he will forever be known as one of the great writer/producers in TV history. His hits include The Rockford Files, The A-Team, The Greatest American Hero, 21 Jump Street, Hunter, Wiseguy, The Commish, and…well, he cut his teeth back in the day as a writing supervisor on Adam-12.

Cannell spoke to Fancast about writing books and television in his office, a palatial spread of rooms larger and more lavish than most homes, but befitting a man who also keeps a yacht anchored off Nice and took off after this interview for San Francisco in his private jet. Enthusiastic, driven, funny, and quick, he shared insider tips and behind-the-scenes stories.

Let’s talk books first, then TV. How do you start a book?

Well, it’s a process, you know. The first thing is selecting the idea. And I’ve learned to be very careful about selecting the idea. I want it to be the best that I can offer, you know, and so the first part of it is to try and find an idea that works for me. With this book, I had already plotted a 70 page outline for another book that was going to be a Shane Scully called The White Shark Café, which was actually a very, very good solid detective mystery story with a great character. I was actually up to writing. But then I came up with this idea. And I was getting set to go to Europe.

I have a boat in Europe and I like to start my novels in July on that boat, or at least be into it, you know. It’s a big boat and I have an office on the third deck and it’s all tricked out and I get up every morning just like I do at home before anybody else is awake and it’s dark and I go up to my office and I turn on the lights and I start writing. So I was getting set to do that, and I came across this idea of these little incorporated cities in downtown Los Angeles that are being run like third world countries by corrupt mayors and hiring police officers that have been thrown off of other departments for violence. And I thought, oh my, this is too much fun, and it’s right here. It’s not like you’re going to Fallbrook or something; its right here. It’s in downtown LA. So I started to think about it and researched it and put my cast of characters together. Normally I’ll write a 70 page outline, but with this one I probably only wrote about a 25 page outline

That’s a very detailed outline before you even start the book?

I want to get the architecture of the book down. I was once at a book event with Michael Chabon and he was talking and we talked about, you know, after writing 300 pages of a novel, he couldn’t finish it and spiked it. And I remember, my first thought was where did you put it? Maybe I can figure it out for you.

Funny.

I don’t denigrate anybody’s process, but with my life the way it is – I produce movies, I act, I write novels, I do TV, and I have other businesses. So my life is fairly full. And I have a family. I can’t hit my deadlines if I’m throwing away 300 pages of a book.

So I’m very careful about what I write, and that’s how I start. I finally get to the place where the book has matured in my mind and I can hardly wait to start writing it. Then I just sit down and I start. I hit the go button. I have an outline, which is 70 pages, but I don’t look at it. I never have to look at it.

How long do you work for?

Five hours.

How do you build something with so many twists and surprises?

I believe in three act structure. When I say that to novel people, or people in the world of books, they go, well, that’s a film thing. However, even a good joke has three acts. I could take The Old Man in the Sea and show you the three acts in that novel. I could take Grapes of Wrath and show you the three acts. If you don’t have a complication at the end of your first act, which makes your problem more unique, more interesting, more devastating for the protagonist … if your adversary is not in motion in act two, if he’s not actually trying to defeat your antagonist, but is just standing around waiting to get caught, then you have a weak act.

There are certain rules to how you put these acts together. At the end of act two is the second act curtain, and that’s historically the destruction of the hero’s plans. In the Old Man and the Sea, he almost loses his life to that shark. At the end of the second act, the hero should be at death’s door emotionally, physically, any way you can put him there. Then from the devastation of the end of act two, the hero should go on and solve his more complicated problem and learn something in the doing. He should come away a smarter, wiser person. If you got all that in a book, you ain’t going to throw it away.

Do you have a favorite part to write – act one, two or three?

Well, the first act is the easiest to plot. The second act is always the hardest to plot. Generally a good, you know, sometimes the third act can be difficult because you can get into a rut in the third act – everybody runs to their Corvette, has a chase and you catch the bad guy. You’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to find new ways to solve your problems. But basically the solutions are not as hard to come up with as the complication in the second act. I devote a lot of time to act two.

How long does it take you to write a book?

I can write a book in probably three months.

Do you celebrate when you finish?

I’m usually let down. I hate to finish because I enjoy the process. The fun part is writing the book. Once I’m finished, I have to sit down and come up with another story that I’ve got to research, plot and figure out. I have to do all the hard work before I can start to have fun again.

How did you break into the business of writing TV?

it took me five years of writing for five yours after a day at a regular job. I was married – I’m still married to the same woman – and I would sit down and write from 5 in the evening till around 10:30 at night. That was my life. I did that year after year after year. I wrote on the weekend, too – a half day on Saturday and a half day on Sunday. I wrote about seven hours. So it was a major investment in time. I really had this desire to do it.

Your first big regular job was on Adam-12. What’s your take on that show?

I thought it was an amazing show. It informs most of what I’m doing still.

How so?

I ended up getting very close to police work while I was doing that show. Jack Webb insisted that as the head writer of the show I would go out at least once a week in a squad car, and it was never in the Valley. He wanted me in University Division, Rampart, the tough spots. I got in a couple of shootings. I got in code 3 rides. I saw police work from the back seat of a squad car. And I developed an immense respect to what police officers do, how difficult that job is how much is required of them, and how criticized they are for doing something that’s almost impossible. As I said, it informs a lot of what I’m still writing.

What made that series work?

It’s always the characters. I thought Marty and Kent played their characters really well. And then when I was doing the show – and I can really only speak to it for the two years that I did it – I tried to mine some of the things that I saw in police work from the back of the squad cars. I wanted to show that drama.

Before I got to the show, there was always that that woman who had curlers in her hair and was going mercy oh my, the cat is in the tree. Well, if you’re going to make it interesting, every character has to have a yesterday and has to have a tomorrow. When I was taking writing courses in college, our writing instructor just said give your character a yesterday and give him a tomorrow. But it seemed to me the lady with the curler in her hair going oh my, my cat is in the tree was just about the cat. So to change the dynamic, I put her in a business suit with a briefcase. And when the guys roll in, she’s screaming I’ve got to be at my office I’ve got six people waiting for me and this damn cat. All of a sudden she’s got a tomorrow, she’s got a yesterday, she’s a fully blown.

How did The Rockford Files main coming into being?

I was producing a show called Toma, and we had been on strike. I came back in after the Writer’s strike and the network did not push back their premiere, and we didn’t have any lead time to get our scripts ready. We began to realize that our 5th episode of Toma was going to be in the lab – actually, it was still going to be getting developed – when it was supposed to be on the air. We had no post production time for it at all. So we went to ABC and said you’ve got to back up this and give us a little more lead time on these scripts and our post production. They said we can’t. We’ve got to get on the air. We went to Universal and we asked them to help us and they said we can’t help you because we’ve got this problem on six other ABC shows. We’ve got to hit the air date.

Roy Huggins was the executive producer on Toma. One day I was walking behind him back from this meeting at the tower of Universal. I was 28 years old, in my first producing job. The 5th episode wasn’t going to be ready for its air date, and I thought I was going to lose my job. As we walked along, I said Roy, what do we do, what do we do? He goes, well why don’t we just create our own preemption. I said, can we do that? He goes, I don’t see why not. So he goes back to his office, sits down behind this desk, and he takes out the universal phone directory. He starts reading the phone directory. I’m thinking we’re in trouble, what is he doing? Who is he trying to call?

He stops on a name and he says Tom Rockford. Do you like that name? And I went, yeah, it’s fine. We later changed it to Jim. And he says, okay, this thing is called The Rockford Files. And he said, Toma is going to get a case and it’s going to get closed by his Inspector Spooner, and he’s going to know it’s a murder. Even though Spooner thinks it’s a suicide and takes it away from him. So he goes to his friend Rockford who only handles closed cases, those are the files Roy tells me, and then we do the Rockford and we shoot it simultaneously with the 5th episode of Toma, shoot it on the air ahead of the 5th episode of Toma and we buy 7 days on our post production schedule and get that 5th promo on the air afterwards.

And I’m going, that is so fucking – I said, can we sell – well let’s see. So he picks up the phone and he calls Steve Gentry at ABC, and Gentry says yeah, fine, that works. So now he says you’ve got 5 days to write this thing called The Rockford Files. I went home that night, and I don’t know – nobody has asked me who Rockford is. Nobody has asked me anything. Who is the character, what the story is? I mean, the network was in such chaos because of the strike. So I was thinking well who is this guy?

That night I happened to be watching an episode of Mannix, and in this episode of Mannix, a little black girl comes in and tries to hire Mannix because her mother is missing. She’s about 7 years old. And after she gives him this sad woeful tale about her mom being missing, she asks how much do you cost? He says, how much have you got? She opens this little plastic purse and dumps out some quarters and candy on his desk, and he goes, that’s just the right amount.

Sweet story, but I thought bullshit. I thought my guy is going to go wait a minute, hold it. Who sent you here? Did my father send…All of a sudden I’m starting to hear the dialogue of this guy. This guy is me if I’m a private eye. If I get threatened man, you can have my car, you can have my watch, you can have my wallet. Put the gun away, I’m not going to hurt you. I instantly had the take for how to do it. And so I start writing it. I had them running credit checks on the beautiful client. Her check bounces on him and all he wants to do, he said, you know your check bounced, and he’s talking about money all the time, and you know, he’s not like Mannix at all. He would say, look I’ve got lights, I’ve got – hey lady I don’t work for nothing. Nobody on television had been saying stuff like that. And so I thought it was hysterically funny.

My script ballooned up to 90 pages from what it should have been, because all this comedy was in it. I brought it into Roy and like everybody, he turned to the last page and said the story pages are too long Steve. I go yeah, I know. I said you’ll just cut it for me Roy.

So he calls me at three in the morning and said it was the funniest script he had read in 5 years. And I said, well what are we going to do with the extra 30 pages? He said, we’re gong to shoot them. I said, well how are we going to do that? He said, we’re just going to shoot them. So we sent it over to ABC. They read the script and hated it. Hated it. We had the worst meeting there that I probably ever had in television, and it was early in my career. I thought I’ll never work again. Because I was just a new face in town. It was terrible. This desecrating piece of…Steve Gentry said, you can’t have a hero that runs credit checks on the vulnerable client and quits every time he’s threatened. His father thinks he’s a jerk, and I’m going no, no, his father thinks that he’s made a bad career choice. And they said, get all that out of there. And Roy said well we’re not cutting a word. And Steve Gentryr said, well then we’re not shooting, and Roy said suit yourself. And we left.

And I’m thinking oh fuck. I mean, my career. I was just trying to help out, you know, but I just got caught up in writing this character. God bless Roy, though. He knew it was gold. He knew it was gold. I didn’t think it was. I thought it was a good script. I thought it was funny, but I didn’t know it was gold. But he knew it was gold. Roy had done Maverick, and so he said, what you have written is a contemporary version of Maverick. He got this thing to Jim Garner, and Jim read and in 72 hours, and he agreed to do the part

That was obviously key.

He instantly saw it. So then the studio called NBC had said you’ve got a 90 minute movie, it’s called – because it’s now a 90, because it was 90 pages long. It’s called The Rockford Files. And it stars Jim Garner, yes or no? And NBC said, well send me the script. It sounds interesting. The guy at the studio said no. No, you can’t have this script. It’s called The Rockford Files. It’s 90 minutes long and it stars Jim Garner. Now tell me yes or no or we’re taking it to CBS. And finally J.J. McMann at NBC said okay, I’ll buy it. Send me the script. Well they hated it even worse than – but by then we had the order. They wanted to have story notes and rewrite shit, and Roy and Jim just said no. Jim absolutely refused. He said this is what we’re shooting. So it never would have been had it not come through that very strange process.

What’s the story behind The A-Team?

it was basically a concept that Brandon Tartikoff had and he sort of semi pitched to me. Frank Lupo and I took the bones of what Brandon was talking about, turned it into The A Team, went back and pitched it back at Brandon, and he bought it.

That’s funny. What was Brandon’s concept?

We went over there to sell him something else and he said I don’t want to hear your idea. I want to tell you an idea. I said, okay. He said it’s called The A Team. Initially, I thought, gee I don’t like that title. It’s like as a football player – I was a serious high school player – I thought it just felt kind of athletic and sportsy. I didn’t know what it was. But hten he said, you remember Road Warrior, the Mad Max movie with Mel Gibson? I went yeah, yeah. He says, well it’s kind of that, but it’s not that at all. And he says, do you remember The Dirty Dozen? I went yeah. He said, it’s not a military show like that. Those skuzzy guys, Lee Marvin getting them out of jail and everything. There is something about it, but it’s not that. Don’t do The Dirty Dozen. And I went okay. Then he said, do you know the guy Belcher in Hill Street Blues? Bruce Weitz plays him. I said, yeah. He’s crazy, he bites guys at the booking desk. He bites them in the ankle like a dog. Brandon said, yeah, he could be in the show. And he said, you know that guy Mr. T. the corporate line guy in the Rocky movie? I go yeah. He drives the car.

Really.

That was his pitch. And I said, well, okay. He said, see if you can work that up for me. So Frank and I left and we went down to the Universal Commissary. Frank goes what the fuck was he? It was my first meeting ever with Brandon, so I couldn’t read him as well as I learned to after we had done a lot of work together. But I said, I think this guy is telling us to break all the rules we know about leading men in television and about what an hour TV show should be. I said, I’ve always wanted to do a series about soldiers of fortune, those skuzzy guys that advertise in the back of mercenary magazines. Nobody – no network guy would ever let me develop that. But Brandon said to start there. So Frank and I sat there and we started to put these really desperate characters together. And we needed to come up with a pilot, because it was a mid season replacement show. Brandon was really out of time. He needed it tomorrow, you know. So we didn’t have time, so we said let’s just rip off a big Western – we came up with the Magnificent Seven. It was all plotted, we didn’t have to fuck with it. So that’s what we did. Frank and I pitched that to him a day or two later and he said that’s the show.

It’s interesting how many big stars have passed through your shows – before they were big stars.

Johnny Depp was certainly one of them in 21 Jump Street. You know, we used to use Brad Pitt as a day player. We would fly him up to Canada and he’d be a high school kid for us

What TV shows do you watch?

I like House.  My wife really likes Special Victims Unit.  I loved The Sopranos when it was on.
Watch The A-Team Pilot.